For the last twenty years or so, I’ve been thinking about abscission layers. I have read meticulous accounts of those layers and the processes that reliably produce them in biology texts where, after several readings, I thought I got the general idea. I read those texts because it occurred to me that the “career” of a leaf and the career of a person like me had some similarities that might be clarified by a thoughtful analogy. If you are going to work it out analogically, you need to get at least the rudiments of the science right. That’s what the biology texts were for.
I’m picturing the red oak tree outside the bedroom window. It’s a deciduous tree, so all the leaves fall off every winter. Deciduous simply means “falls off.” Every leaf that oak produces during the productive seasons needs to be connected to the tree so it can send back to tree system the energy it has produced and so it can be part of the complex internal communications system of the tree. When it is done with all those things, it needs to fall off of the twig it was attached to and it needs to do so in a way that doesn’t leave a wound behind. To get an idea of the difference, think of allowing the leaves to fall off naturally—just what “naturally” means is going to be explored in a moment—as opposed to just ripping the leaves off before they are “ready.”
Leaves fall off effortlessly and naturally. They do that by developing abscission layers that look like this. The action I am thinking about happens where the leaf stalk comes out of the stem. It is the abscission layer that allows the leaf to fall off when it is time and the protective layer (cork) that allows the tree to be unharmed by the departure of the leaf.
That’s how the leaves do it; people, very often, do it differently. Being attached to the stem is all we’ve ever known. Through that stem we send the complete product of our working lives. Through that stem we receive the nutrients we need and all the messages that the hormonal messengers bring us. Then, one day, a message comes that we have never had before. “Thanks for all the good work. We couldn’t have survived without you and your colleagues. But we are entering a period of rest and recovery and won’t need you any longer.”
At that point, the abscission layer begins to develop. The leaf, which has worn the characteristic green (chlorophyll) coveralls since it was brand new on the job, takes the work clothes off and reveals the marvelous yellows and oranges and reds—carotenoids and anthocyanins– that go with its retirement. Eventually the leaf drops off and leaves the tree safe from the water loss and the danger of infection that the tree would have experienced had the abscission layer not been formed—and leaves a space where a new working leaf can appear when business picks up again next spring.
My idea is that the way a leaf does it is a really good description of how we would do it ourselves if we were smart enough and good-hearted enough and brave enough. But what the leaves do naturally, we must do intentionally. We must be willing to receive the message that the tree is shutting down for a while. Some people refuse to receive the message. Some manage to suppress its plain meaning and many spend a good deal of money in the process. We must deliberately set the appropriate processes going. Abscission layers aren’t going to build themselves the way they do in leaves. The protective layer that will protect the tree from the bad things that would otherwise happen in our absence will not build itself as it does in leaves. Leaves know that there is a time to grow, a time to work, and a time to shut down and fall off. People don’t always know that.
I’ve been looking at this process from the standpoint of the leaf, but now I want to switch to the standpoint of the tree. Like most people in their seventies, I have had some experiences of loss and I have learned two things: a) an attachment like an important relationship doesn’t just end at one time and b) there are better ways to manage the experience and worse ways.
My mother died 24 years ago, give or take a week. In some ways, I knew right away what that would mean. I knew, for instance, that I wouldn’t be talking to her on the phone any more, but I didn’t know that each of the ways we had known each other during my whole life would die a separate little death. The joke we shared about the tag in my shirt is now a joke with no one to share it. That leaf has fallen. The form letters that served as “family letters” and which were redeemed by the personal notes she wrote on the bottom of the last page will not come any more. That leaf has fallen, too. The thousand childhood tricks by which I tried to avoid doing something I should have done are now gone, because only Mother appreciated them—an appreciation dimmed only slightly by her trying, and failing, to put on a stern face to lecture me about it. All those leaves have fallen as well.
So it doesn’t happen all at once. If you are going to manage all the abscission layers of all the leaves—not likely, really—you are going to have to prepare thoughtfully for the safe departure of each leaf. And they don’t all happen at once. We don’t leave our productive lives all at once; we don’t leave our social settings all at once; we don’t leave our various friendships, central and peripheral, all at once. And each one of them needs to have a careful sealing off on the stem side and an effective breaking off (“deciduous,” remember) on the leaf side. Bad things happen when those are not properly done.
So attachments don’t end all at once and if you are a person, rather than a leaf, the ending will require careful thought and consistent practice. This brings us to the second point, which is that there are better ways and worse ways to do that. We can take the end of our productive careers not as an appropriate and satisfying end—that is what the yellow, the orange, and the red mean to me—but as a renunciation of the value our work. “After all I’ve done for you,” we say, “…now this!” And we say, “No one really understood how important my work really was. If the tree really understood how important my livelihood as a leaf is, it would postpone the slowdown until I was ready.” And, of course, “It isn’t fair!”
Other lives end the way a long-running Broadway play ends. There is celebration and satisfaction. It had a great run! Everyone who has been part of that particular play is given a brief vision of the way their work has connected with the work of others they didn’t even know. There are nostalgic retrospectives. And then the scenery is put away for the last time and the actors and directors and producers and stagehands move on to the next project.
I know it is beyond me to accomplish this, but in my status as a tree, I do understand that my life has been made possible by the thousands upon thousands of contributions from the leaves that have provided the energy I needed to do what I have done. I want to prepare for each of those separations with the appreciation they deserve and I want to protect my own life for the next round of productive work. I don’t want ragged or thoughtless separations. They hurt; and they run the risk of diseases I can’t afford. And they aren’t necessary.
In my status as a leaf, I have only one abscission layer to manage. I want to do it right because otherwise the tree to which I have given the results of my whole working life will experience losses and risks I don’t want. I want to get the news of the impending slowdown at the right time. I want to know immediately what it means. I want to start right away building the layers that will allow me to fall away without damage to the tree. I want to display the beautiful colors of my life that were always there, beneath the green work coveralls. I want the people who see those colors to enjoy them fully, even if they don’t know what they mean. And then I want to fall off. I know business is going to pick up again in a little bit and I want there to be room for the new guy to get to work when the time comes.
After Dad died, I sent Mother a picture of a leaf from the red oak in my lawn. The colors were as rich as any the oak produced that year. The abscission layer had been built. The tree had been protected. I knew that’s the way Mother understood that part of her life, so on the picture, I had a really good calligrapher write, “The leaf that wholly loves its Tree/Will never know despair.” I knew she would know what that meant.